Riot-ridden Britain in a tizzy over social media

As riots subside, politicians try to persuade social networks to cooperate by blocking miscreants. Twitter appears reluctant to toe the line. Some police begin to tweet the names, addresses, and dates of birth of looters. Confused, anyone?

Now that your local electrical store, corner store, or betting shop (as they call them in the U.K.) has been smashed to pieces, the politicians have popped back from their holidays to ease society's woes.

The solution seems, largely, to involve blocking people from Facebook, Twitter, and BlackBerry's fine, but absurdly private BBM messaging service.

The Financial Times suggests that Facebook and BlackBerry might be a little more keen to curry favor with the British government, while Twitter is very much a let-it-flow concern.

But doesn't this sound a little like a relationship with a controlling lover? She looks you in the face and tells you she loves your sense of freedom, loves the gay abandon of your articulate tone. But please could you make sure you don't say or do anything that she doesn't like.

The people who are now seeking to clasp their fingers around the oxygen supply of social networks are the very same who lauded the people of Egypt and Libya when they used those networks to organize against their governments.

They seek to stifle organization--or even conversation--on social networks in their own country, when they themselves want to use those networks to further their own cause, both abroad and at home.

The Greater Manchester Police's announcement on Twitter. Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Just today, the Greater Manchester Police decided to use Twitter to publish the names, dates of birth, and addresses of those convicted. This is public information. But some might imagine that outing villains with violins that aren't theirs smacks of an cheery urge to have social media working only one way. Which might tend to limit the social aspect.

You might think, though, that everyone in Britain is ready to hand in footage, images, anything that might help to convict those boys, girls and, reportedly, Olympic ambassadors, who have allegedly caused harm. You might think that Boy George is in manacles in the Tower of London.

The BBC and other TV networks are reportedly demanding that the police produce a court order before any riotous film is handed over.

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The networks' argument is that they would hate the idea of the authorities being able to automatically trawl through anything and everything that might take their fancy. Yet, this appears to be precisely what the British Prime Minister is suddenly rather keen on.

I am sure there would be those who have lived--or still live--under slightly more onerous regimes who might wonder just what precedent Britain might be setting. Those who merely watched the brilliant German movie "The Lives of Others" might also consider where the panic of a few politicians might ultimately lead.

I don't remember--before the advent of these heinous social media tools--plotters being blocked from using telephones. I don't remember conspirators or looters being prevented from, say, frequenting a pub or a Turkish bath because that's where they conducted their conspiring.

There does seem some small frustration on the part of the authorities that the people who managed to organize via their BlackBerrys seem technologically more sophisticated than their alleged betters and elders. So let's take the kids' ball away.

Well, perhaps. But perhaps it is also routine for bank robbers to use BBM these days, just as, my shady connections tell me, it is routine for all sorts of Mafia to use pre-paid cell phones. Will these be included in some brave, new British law?

In any case, surely there will be one or two people who, while decrying the sheer animalism of the looting, might still wonder about some bankers who looted the government's coffers and seem still able to use their BlackBerrys.

Perhaps, though, it's pointless to be idealistic. Britain looks bad in the eyes of the world. So if its government blocks the hoodie-wearing wastrels from using BlackBerrys, Facebook, and Twitter, social unrest will drift away like an old piece of wood on the tide.

Given that Britain is looking for swift solutions, might there be one already on its doorstep?

Surely there are several slightly underemployed phone hackers around, after the humble mea culpas of News International . Might they be persuaded to commit to the nation's cause?

 

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